College-shopping students have a new query: Is abortion legal there?

·10 min read

Teenagers ponder many questions when they draw up college application lists. Should they go for rural or urban? Cold or warm? Big or small? Public or private? Pricey or affordable? Near home or far away?

Now comes, suddenly, another variable. Abortion: Protected or banned?

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"It's so incredibly disheartening," Charlotte Hawthorn said. The 17-year-old from Orinda, Calif., doesn't want to rule out colleges based on regional politics. She cares about weather - "I want somewhere that isn't Arctically cold," she said - and wants a place that will challenge her liberal beliefs. Ideally, she said, it would be a school "that isn't just a bunch of super-politically-correct California kids."

But the Supreme Court decision last month that overturned Roe v. Wade, erasing the constitutional right to abortion, scrambled her calculations. Upset over the ruling, she is torn over whether to apply to a well-known university in a state that is moving to ban most abortions. She finds strict antiabortion laws disturbing. "It's really hard to ignore," she said.

The rapid emergence of state abortion bans in the South, Midwest and elsewhere has jolted many parents and college-bound students, forcing hard questions within families about what matters in the college search. Many schools in abortion-banning states, meanwhile, face the risk of losing potential students from huge swaths of the country that favor abortion rights.

Several prominent schools in this situation declined requests for interviews about how they would respond to prospective students concerned about abortion access. But some acknowledged the issue in written statements.

In Texas, leaders of Rice University wrote last month that the court's ruling "has serious consequences for women," imposing new hurdles to the effective management of reproductive health. The state has banned abortion, with narrow exceptions.

"The added burdens, including out of state travel for those seeking abortion services, will fall most harshly on the least economically advantaged," the university's outgoing president, David W. Leebron, and provost (now president), Reginald DesRoches, wrote to their community on June 28. "Rice is committed to gender equality and to supporting our faculty, staff, and students. We are exploring how we can best continue to appropriately support the reproductive rights of our community, including access to abortion services."

The private university in Houston, with about 4,000 undergraduates, illuminates an enrollment fact crucial for many big-name colleges and universities: Most of its students come from out of state.

A Washington Post analysis of federal enrollment data for fall 2020 found that 25% of incoming freshmen at Rice were from California, New York, Illinois and other states where abortion is legal and likely to remain protected. Forty percent hailed from Texas, and another 12% from other states where abortion bans are in place or imminent. The rest were mostly from overseas or states where abortion is legal now.

Of course, the laws of any given state do not determine how individuals who live there feel about abortion. But the geographic divides on the issue underscore unique tensions for colleges and universities in abortion-banning states. These schools are often recruiting far beyond state lines, and they don't want to turn off potential students or families.

The court ruling is already shaping college tours for the Burke family of Atlanta.

Heather Burke said her teenage daughter, now in high school, plans to look out of state for college because Georgia has banned abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy. After the court ruling, Burke and her daughter remapped a trip planned for this summer. Originally, they were going to fly to Baltimore and then drive through Pennsylvania and Ohio to check out liberal arts colleges and midsized universities. But Ohio's six-week abortion ban, and the uncertainties of politics in Pennsylvania - where abortion is legal for now - led Burke to switch their travel to Massachusetts, Rhode Island and California.

Burke said she wants her daughter to be able to focus on learning in college, not on the distractions likely to arise if she or someone she knows faced an unwanted pregnancy without the option of abortion. "I don't want my kid to be panic-stricken," Burke said.

Many people believe students who want an abortion could travel to get one. Burke questions that assumption. "What if it becomes a situation where you can't travel?" she said. "Where do you go from there?"

But Burke also worries about the cost of restricting her daughter's college search. What if her daughter fails to apply to a college in an abortion-banning state that would have offered a generous scholarship? The court ruling "was a huge curveball," she said. "I feel like our options have become much more limited."

Massive numbers of students, especially those who are financially strapped, attend college close to home regardless of abortion views. But federal enrollment data indicates about a quarter of freshmen leave their home state to enroll in four-year colleges and universities.

At Oberlin College, a private liberal arts school in Ohio with 2,700 students and a left-leaning reputation, the out-of-state share is larger. About 5% of its 2020 freshmen were from Ohio. More than half of its incoming students came from states that protect abortion, The Post's analysis found, including 9% from California and 12% from New York.

"As our understanding of this new post-Roe world emerges, Oberlin will evaluate the ways we are able to continue offering our community the best possible access to reproductive health care," the college's president, Carmen Twillie Ambar, said in a June 25 statement.

Washington University in St. Louis, another private institution with national reach, must reckon with Missouri's abortion ban. But just across the Mississippi River lies an abortion-protecting state.

"Students coming to WashU have access to reproductive health care through the resources that are legally available in Missouri and our neighboring state of Illinois," Ronné P. Turner, the university's vice provost for admissions and financial aid, said in a statement. About half of its 2020 freshmen came from abortion-protecting states, The Post found. The university has about 7,700 undergraduates.

Prestigious colleges and universities are likely to be in high demand regardless of changes in abortion law.

"Interest in Vanderbilt remains strong," the private university in Nashville said in a statement. With about 7,000 undergraduates, the university draws about 34% from Tennessee and other states with current or imminent abortion bans. More than 40% come from states likely to protect abortion.

Public universities are often cautious in what they say about abortion, fearful of rousing the wrath of lawmakers and governors who control their funding. Clemson University in South Carolina, Georgia Tech and the universities of Alabama, Georgia and Texas - all public - declined or did not respond to requests for interviews about the potential impact of state abortion restrictions on out-of-state recruiting.

UT-Austin said in a statement that it offers "a variety of reproductive health care services," including wellness exams, pregnancy testing and information on contraceptives. But it said the university's health services do not "dispense abortive medications" or "provide abortion services."

By contrast, California's public universities are preparing to follow a state law that will require student health centers to offer access to abortion pills - a method of terminating early pregnancies without an abortion provider inserting tools into the uterus.

Whatever their abortion policies, most public universities share this in common: They yearn for out-of-state students because those students typically pay higher tuition.

For schools in abortion-protecting states, the legal upheaval could provide a marketing opportunity.

"We can talk about states that respect the rights of all its residents and all its citizens," said Jon Boeckenstedt, vice provost for enrollment management at Oregon State University. "Kids who are smart enough will figure it out." Most of Oregon State's 26,000 undergraduates come from Oregon, but the university is pushing to expand its reach in states such as Idaho, Utah and Texas.

Boeckenstedt said he believes political climate, including state abortion laws, "will have some effect around the edges" on recruiting. "We're talking about students who have the luxury of crossing state lines to go to college," he said.

The court ruling could also influence college choices for some students who oppose abortion. Mackenzie Grace Smethers, 17, of Greenville, N.C., is active in the antiabortion group Students for Life of America. Smethers said she is considering public East Carolina University in her hometown and private Hillsdale College, a conservative-leaning school in Michigan.

The fight to overturn Roe v. Wade energized her, Smethers said, and she wants to continue her activism in college. She finds Michigan appealing because the state appears to be a battleground in the quest to make abortion illegal. "Over the last two years, I've been so involved in pro-life politics," she said. "I've never been in a state where I have not had to fight for pro-life laws."

The urge toward activism animates both sides.

Sophie Anderson-Haynie, 18, of Albuquerque, said she is about to enter Agnes Scott College in Georgia. She called her mother, Aeron Haynie, an associate professor of English at the University of New Mexico, on June 24 to commiserate over the Supreme Court's abortion ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization. The two of them knew that Anderson-Haynie's journey to the 1,100-student women's college would take her from a place where abortion is protected to one where it is mostly banned.

"I'm not going to change my mind," Anderson-Haynie told The Post. "I still want to go there. In fact, I think I want to go there even more now there are women who aren't going to have access to abortion the same way we have it here in New Mexico." Anderson-Haynie aims to get involved in movements to change Georgia. "If there's a chance I could make a difference, I would want to," she said.

Admission experts say it's unlikely the Dobbs decision will lead many students who just graduated from high school to forfeit deposits paid to start college in the fall. That entering class appears mostly set.

One Alabama mother, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her daughter's privacy, said she offered to help engineer a last-minute switch to a university in abortion-protecting Colorado if the daughter wanted to renege on a commitment to a school in Georgia. But the daughter stuck with her plan. "She's got a roommate, done the orientation," this mother said. "It would just be heart-wrenching to abandon it."

Future classes are another matter. Agitated parents are pressing children to think twice about applying to schools in abortion-ban states. Carissa Hawthorn said she tore into a list that a counselor suggested for her daughter Charlotte: "Tennessee? . . . That's a no-go. . . . Ohio? No, thank you. . . . Louisiana? No, thank you. . . . St. Louis? I'm not giving money to a state that doesn't think she's an equal member of society."

But Hawthorn acknowledged Charlotte's enduring curiosity about a certain university in a southern state with an abortion ban. "Yes. She is interested . . . ugh," the mother wrote. "We would have to have long talk about it."

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